Epiphany 5B

January 30, 2012

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Mark 1:29-39

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Isaiah 40:21-31

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

    Author: Doug Bratt

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    Psalm 147 is one of the psalter’s five last psalms, each of which begins and ends with a “Hallelu Yah!”   It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate way to close God’s people’s hymnbook.  In fact, this psalm even basically begins by asserting the fittingness of praise to God.  It is, insists the psalmist, “good,” “pleasant” and “fitting” to praise the Lord.  In fact, in a culture that always seems to ask, “What will this do?” the psalmist even claims that praise to God is appropriate all by itself.

    The psalmist takes time, virtually in the middle of Psalm 147, to describe appropriate vehicles for praising God.  “Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving,” he writes in verse 7, “Make music to our God on the harp.”  Praise to God is, after all, so fitting and right that it calls for both the human voice and instrumentation.  In fact, as Psalm 148 adds, it’s so appropriate that praise to God calls for the whole creation to join in it.

    Praise to God is appropriate for a number of reasons.  A close inspection of those reasons reveals some striking features.  God, insists the psalmist, is praiseworthy because God’s activity is cosmic in its scope.  God, in a sense, stoops down to care for lowly Jerusalem and her exiles.  God, in other words, is praiseworthy because God has launched what James Limburg refers to as a second kind of exodus, gathering Israel’s exiles from afar, healing their hurts and settling them in a land that’s marked by shalom.

    Of course, some confusion may stem from the psalmist’s use of a present tense to describe God’s building up of Jerusalem and gathering of her exiles.  Those are, after all, historic acts.  Limburg, however, suggests that the psalmist uses the present tense to describe God’s historical activity in order to remind God’s people that such restoration is typical of God’s care for God’s children.  So when the church says, “The Lord builds up Jerusalem” and “gathers Israel’s exiles,” we’re professing that God continues to care for God’s people, even in the face of tribulation.

    God, however, doesn’t just reach down to lowly Jerusalem and Israel’s exiles.  God’s care also extends beyond what the human eye can see to the majestic stars.  God knows their numbers and is so familiar with them that God even calls them by name.  While some of Israel’s pagan neighbors thought of those stars as divine, the psalmist asserts that they are merely the domain of Yahweh, the living God.

    As he lists reasons why praise to God is so appropriate, Psalm 147’s author also asserts that God is very active in God’s creation.  This God is no divinity that made things and then simply sat back to watch them exist on their own.  The psalmist uses present tense verbs to describe God’s intimate involvement with what God has made and continues to make.  God “builds up, “gathers,” “binds up,” “determines,” “calls” and so forth.

    The fittingness of praise to God is evident as well in God’s ongoing care for cities, people and creatures that other largely overlook.  God builds up Jerusalem that her enemies have basically reduced to rubble.  God gathers Israel’s exiles who perhaps feel forgotten even by God.  This God heals those in pain, binding up their wounds.  This God even cares for baby birds that some of the poet’s contemporaries may have assumed their parents left to take care of themselves.

    There’s certainly a kind of tenderness to such praiseworthy activity.  Psalm 147’s images are parental and gentle.  God builds up and gathers, heals and binds up, calls and provides food.  But the psalmist doesn’t want God’s tenderness confused with some kind of moral weakness or indecision.  God watches out for those about whom few others care.  However, God also casts the wicked to the ground.  In fact, we might say that one way God sustains the humble is by punishing those who torment them.

    God acts in praiseworthy ways in both history and in the creation.  God doesn’t, after all, just care for Jerusalem, Israel’s exiles, the brokenhearted and the humble.  God also acts on the cosmic stage.  God knows the stars intimately.  However, God is also deeply involved with caring for what God makes.  No matter how we understand God’s activity in what God has made, God’s children realize that God somehow generously provides for God’s creation.  The psalmist understands God to cover the sky with clouds that supply the earth with rain so that grass grows so that the cattle and young ravens have food to eat.  In a “neighborhood” where Israel’s neighbors were deeply confused about who’s in charge of the weather, the psalmist asserts that it’s Yahweh who is the God of the seasons.

    Yet God isn’t praiseworthy just because of what God does.  The psalmist also asserts that it’s appropriate to praise the Lord for who God is, for God’s character.  The God of Psalm 147 is “great,” “mighty in power” and has limitless “understanding.”  There’s a vast chasm between this mighty God and people.  Yet this great God is no “unmoved Mover” who views God’s creation dispassionately.  While we sometimes have a hard time imagining that God has any sort of emotions, the psalmist insists that Yahweh finds pleasure and delight in what God has made.  God’s love is, in fact, unfailing, tenacious.

    And because God’s is so praiseworthy, God’s children can reject other sources of protection.  God isn’t pleased when people turn to military or human strength.  Other sources of protection shouldn’t delight people either.  After all, even the strength of horses couldn’t protect Jerusalem from destruction.  Even infantry soldiers couldn’t prevent Israelites from being carried off into exile.  No, Psalm 147’s author insists, the only hope for humanity is a fear of God, that is, a healthy reverence that produces a commitment to doing God will, and a placing of hope in God’s unfailing love.

    Of course, preachers and teachers of Psalm 147 may want to help listeners consider other appropriate responses to God’s praiseworthiness.  After all, a faithful response to God’s grace goes beyond praising the Lord and relying on God for help.  So preachers and teachers might want to explore how God’s gathering Israel’s exiles affects Christians’ response to modern refugees.  How might God’s healing the brokenhearted and binding up their wounds inform God’s children’s response to society’s most vulnerable citizens?  How might God’s ongoing involvement with creation affect ways God’s people care for what God has made?

    Illustration Idea

    The National Museum of American History owns the second of the two “Bibles” that Thomas Jefferson created by “editing” the gospels to reflect his understanding of Jesus’ true philosophy.  Jefferson wanted to distinguish Jesus’ genuine teachings from what he called the “corruption of schismatizing followers.”

    However, Jefferson was heavily influenced by the principle of deism.  So he imagined a divine being that created the world but is no longer interested or involved in its daily life.  He, for example, chose not to include in his “gospel” the miracles Jesus performed.  He, in fact, rejected anything that he perceived as “contrary to reason.”  So while Jefferson’s gospel includes some of Jesus’ teachings, including the Sermon the Mount and ends with a description of Jesus’ burial, it omits an account of his resurrection.

    The God of Psalm 147 is radically different from such an uninterested God who is uninvolved in what God created and still creates.  Many of the verbs it uses to describe God’s activity are in the present tense.  Its God is passionately active in God’s handiwork, especially with its most vulnerable creatures.